How do you follow a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel? Once you’ve hit that high, you could try and arrange future work around the same main themes – like Colson Whitehead (and by doing so score another one!), – or you could simply write a sequel and see how that works out.
Việt Thanh Nguyễn, the author of The Sympathizer, ‘a layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a “man of two minds” and two countries, Vietnam and the Unites States’ (as per the Prize citation), moved his duplicitous yet principled hero to France in The Committed.
Why France? The first book, apart from being a highly entertaining spy action novel in itself, is a crash course in the history of the Vietnam War and US participation in it. Having painfully peeled that layer off, Việt gets to the next well-wishing miscreant, the 19th century coloniser on its ‘mission civilisatrice’, La Belle France, which occupied Vietnam for more than six decades. Both used Vietnam to squeeze as much as possible from its people, but whereas the capitalistic, colonising American ‘did not care what he ate so long as he ate too much of it’, the chic Frenchman ‘preferred the refined cruelty of foie gras’.
The novel opens with les boat-people, a belittling term under which Vietnamese fleeing from occupied/liberated (depending on whom you are speaking to) Saigon became known to the world. We meet Bon and our Sympathizer right where we left them – making their way to France from a communist reeducation camp. You don’t have to read the first book to start this one (although why wouldn’t you?), a comprehensive brief is provided.
The Sympathizer chooses to call himself Vo Danh which means No Man, to play an Odysseus-Polyphemus joke on French bureaucracy and also to remind us of the war victims: ‘Vo Danh’ is carved on the graves of the anonymous war dead.
Vo Danh tried being a communist, a secret agent, a revolutionary, a prisoner, he failed in all of those, so now he joins the dark side of capitalism and becomes a gangster. What follows is action, action, and more action, spaced at meticulously regular intervals by philosophy, always with a clever turn of phrase:
‘For someone who never said anything, God certainly spoke to a lot of people.’
Once again, the successful formula of keeping you hooked on narrative while lecturing you on now seemingly everything – racism, colonialism, capitalism, communism, feminism (a new one and a bit eager to be seen) – works. The story of the three blood brothers, Bon, Vo Danh and Man, which broke our hearts in The Sympathizer, continues to serve its higher purpose – proving that there isn’t right or wrong, and that love can erase the walls between ideologies.
Bánh mì, the infamous Vietnamese sandwich born in Saigon, is perfect to pair with the book – after all, it is a product of French colonisation or rather its defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after which Vietnamese in the south were free to modify French dishes to include local ingredients – and, in case of bánh mì, make them better.
‘Dinner with a Book’ is a new Londnr feature created & written by book blogger, Yelena from